Ukrainian commander in Mariupol says forces ‘facing last days, if not hours’

Marine commander appeals for help as another Russian ultimatum calling for remaining troops in city to surrender expires

Lorenzo Tondo and Luke Harding in Kyiv, Isobel Koshiw in DniproWed 20 Apr 2022 14.00 BST

A Ukrainian marine commander fighting in Mariupol has said his forces are “maybe facing our last days, if not hours”, as another Russian ultimatum to the remaining Ukrainian troops in the besieged port city to surrender or die expired with no mass capitulation.

“The enemy is outnumbering us 10 to one,” Serhiy Volyna, a commander from the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, said in a video message posted on Facebook. “We appeal and plead to all world leaders to help us. We ask them to use the procedure of extraction and take us to the territory of a third-party state.”

Vastly outnumbered Ukrainian forces have formed a stubborn pocket of resistance in the Azovstal iron and steelworks – a sprawling mass of tunnels and workshops spread over four square miles in the south-east of the city.

Moscow is edging closer to full control of the city in what would be its biggest prize since it invaded Ukraine in February. Relentless bombardment and street fighting have left much of it pulverised, killing at least 21,000 people by Ukrainian estimates. Its fall would mark the most strategic breakthrough for Russia since the beginning of the invasion.

Russian-backed separatists said shortly before a 2pm (1100 GMT) Wednesday deadline that just five people had surrendered. Similar surrender demands earlier this week were ignored.

Ukraine announced plans to send 90 buses to evacuate 6,000 civilians from Mariupol, saying it had reached a “preliminary agreement” with Russia on a safe corridor, for the first time in weeks. But none of those earlier agreements have actually succeeded on the ground, with Moscow blocking all convoys.

Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians have died in Mariupol, which the Russians have been trying to fully capture since the early days of the war. Those who haven’t managed to flee have been trapped for weeks without power, running water and other supplies.

Mariupol’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko, said on Wednesday that 100,000 civilians remained in the city, and that about 40,000 civilians had been forcibly moved to Russia or Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine.

Graves of civilians killed during the Russian bombardment of Mariupol
Graves of civilians killed during the Russian bombardment of Mariupol. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

The fall of Mariupol, the largest trading port in the Azov Sea from which Ukraine exports grain, iron and steel, and heavy machinery, would be an economic blow to Ukraine and a symbolic victory for Russia. The town is a large port city and a base for Ukrainian armed forces. Taking control would give Moscow a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea.

The long-anticipated large-scale military operation in the Donbas and second phase of the war began on Monday with Russian forces carrying out one of the biggest barrages of missile strikes since the beginning of the invasion.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said the intensity of fire by Russian troops towards Kharkiv, the Donbas and in Dnipro has “increased significantly”.

Zelenskiy said the Russian military was throwing everything it has into the battle, with most of its combat-ready forces concentrated in Ukraine and just across the border in Russia.

“They have driven almost everyone and everything that is capable of fighting us against Ukraine,” he said in his nightly video address to the nation.

Despite claims that they were hitting only military sites, the Russians continued to target residential areas and kill civilians, he said.

So far, according to Ukrainian officials, the frontline in Ukrainian-controlled Donbas is holding. The Ukrainian military expert Oleh Zhdanov described Kreminna in the northern Luhansk region as a “weak spot” – Russian forces seized the city on Tuesday and Ukrainian troops have withdrawn, the regional governor said.

Moscow’s troops frequently attack Ukrainian positions from all sides, said Zhdanov, and were occupying jumping-off points on three sides of the Donbas region: north, east and south.

The Institute for the Study of War, a US thinktank, said Russian forces may be able to take some territory because of superior numbers and artillery.

A local resident walks past burnt out buses in a street in Mariupol
A local resident walks past burnt out buses in a street in Mariupol. Photograph: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

It stressed, however: “Russian operations are unlikely to be dramatically more successful than previous major offensives around Kyiv. The Russian military is unlikely to have addressed the root causes – poor coordination, the inability to conduct cross-country operations, and low morale – that impeded prior offensives.”

In the northern Kharkiv region, Ukrainian forces mounted several successful counterattacks. They recaptured the villages of Bairak and Bobrivka, north-east of Kharkiv city, and Hurisivka, another village between Kharkiv and Izyum, where Russia has assembled a formidable attack force.

On Monday, Oleksandr Motuzianyk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s ministry of defence, said Izyum was the area with the highest concentration of Russian troops.

Izyum, regarded for centuries as the gateway to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and, from there, to the Black Sea, fell fully to Russian forces on 1 April, trapping thousands of civilians in a city where as many as 80% of its residential buildings have been destroyed.

“The enemy has accumulated its forces in Izyum and, unfortunately, has a predominant number of manpower and heavy equipment,” Maksym Strelnyk, the deputy mayor, who managed to leave with thousands of fellow citizens before the town was captured, told the Guardian.

“The Russians are trying to move in the direction of Donetsk region, but there are no serious successes. They are using Izyum as a foothold for the offensive and concentrating all their forces in the city. They set up their barracks, ammunition depots, hospitals, canteens.

“The Russian army in this war is writing itself into world history forever as the most barbaric and inhuman army in the world,” Zelenskiy said.


Leave a Reply